Monday, June 8, 2009

I just finished rereading Ando Arike's 2006 piece for Harper's, titled "Owning the Weather: the Ugly Politics of the Pathetic Fallacy" (I'd like to link it here, but Harper's online is accessible only to subscribers). As it visits a handful of figures and events in the twentieth century race to "own" or manipulate the weather (did you know that in 1953 Congress created the U.S. Advisory Committee on Weather Control?), Arike's essay makes the important point (if not particularly original, see Andrew Ross' Strange Weather) that the pathetic fallacy finds a curious corollary in climate change. If before we were wrong to "see ourselves" in the weather, now we are invited to do so--or at least to recognize the role of increased levels of carbon dioxide from our vehicles and factories in massive storms and in prolonged and disfigured seasons. The thing is, this is all accidental, or at least we didn't design our cars to have such effects. Arike suggests that in spite of attempts by the likes of Wilhelm Reich, John von Neumann and the Advisory Committee on Weather Control to alter the weather in focused and anticipated ways, we've been at it all along, with messy, disproportionate, and unpredictable consequences. 

What interests me most about "Owning the Weather," however, is a move that I think characterizes the struggle by theorists of weather, climate, and environment to describe the relations among human beings, history, and the (natural) world. Toward the end of the essay, Arike describes a "thermal anomaly" picked up by a weather satellite over L.A. on April 30, 1992. "[T]he satellite transmitted to earth a heat-picture of the anomaly's geographic parameters and various temperature zones," he writes, "locating it in the neighborhoods of south-central Los Angeles. ... The image was the thermal map of a social explosion[.]" A suggestive notion; I found myself at first suspecting (hoping?) that the sheer outrage of the rioters after the Rodney King verdict, their incendiary anger and refusal, might register as a concentrated flare of heat in a high resolution infrared image taken from space. But no: Arike writes, "In fact, Los Angeles, or part of it, was burning." How then can he go on to claim that "[a] riot that had itself arisen from the broadcast of a video-taped police beating was being broadcast back to us as a type of geophysical phenomenon"? Not the riot but the fires set by rioters were "broadcast back to us"; the satellite did not image outrage, merely heat. What it "saw" was not appreciably different from a forest fire or volcanic eruption. 

As suggestive as such events may be as figures for the LA riots, in truth they differ irreconcilably. Weather satellites do not register human anger, and fires are just fires, no matter how they begin. Which is not to suggest that Arike is completely wrong; Mike Davis, in Ecology of Fear, makes a related point when he describes how the riots were assimilated to a general narrative of disaster in L.A. But Davis, unlike Arike (whose piece ends on a frustratingly conservative note), is calling attention to perceptual habits and their political implications. So, too, I wish to suggest that it's important that our lives are not "geophysical phenomena," even as our actions precipitate (in messy, disproportionate, unpredictable ways) climate change. Human beings, history, and weather are not a good fit. We know this, better than Arike is willing to admit. This disproportion, and our ways of registering it, are what interest me.

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